Neela Marikkar, President, Sri Lanka First; Managing Director, Grant McCann-Erickson.

Neela Marikkar is president of Sri Lanka First, a powerful group of business leaders advocating a negotiated settlement between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE. She has also worked with the United Nations Development Programme, the Government of Sri Lanka, and her country's Chamber of Commerce.

This event was cosponsored with The Initiative for Inclusive Security.

Speaking from the perspective of the business community, Marikkar described the gap between reality and perception among Sri Lankans, who had widely believed that effects of their country's civil war were isolated in the northeast region. Despite the terrorist attack on Sri Lanka's international airport on July 24, 2001, media controlled by the state and a small group of hardliners served to reinforce the notion that Sri Lanka's economy was sustainable and even growing. Meanwhile, the LTTE continued to manage a de facto government in the northeast, establishing its own borders and its own economy. Sri Lanka's GDP rate of growth dropped to 2%, apparel and tea production slowed, and commercial airline service decreased while airport fees inflated.

Affected and dismayed by their country's dire economic situation, Marikkar and other business leaders formed Sri Lanka First, which contends that the silent majority in Sri Lanka needs to be mobilized to recognize and combat the perils of civil war. Now, citizens have gradually come to associate their economic instability with the internal conflict that extends throughout the country. Marikkar observed that while political parties tend to act upon short-term interests that coincide with their terms in office, the private sector is typically dedicated to long-term investments. Although the private sector is motivated primarily by profit, it is also focused on results. Sri Lanka First embraces the concept that the private sector can utilize its best practices to produce working results for all parties committed to establishing a peaceful Sri Lanka.

Marikkar reflected on Sri Lanka First's continued campaign to inform the public about the costs of conflict. She highlighted a nationwide peace demonstration held on September 19, 2001, in which one million Sri Lankans emerged from their homes and offices, holding hands in the streets to symbolize a unified vision of ending the violence. Commenting on the challenges of planning the peace demonstration in light of terrorist attacks carried out in the United States just ten days earlier, Marikkar attributed the success of the event to support from the media, mobilization by the private sector, and leadership provided by popular celebrities and athletes. Marikkar noted that the sentiment of Sri Lanka First is juxtaposed to that of the Bush Administration and groups in Sri Lanka such as the National Movement Against Terrorism. She asserted that instead of alienating terrorists, engaging warlords in the peace process could encourage them to assume a productive role in negotiations.

Reviving Sri Lanka's war-torn economy and increasing foreign investment is critical to building and maintaining stability. Marikkar suggested that businesses in Sri Lanka should emulate the way in which the private sector in South Africa has enhanced post-conflict job growth and tourism. Additionally, Marikkar praised the role of Business for Peace Alliance, which works to generate a dialogue and common understanding between Sri Lankan business leaders based in the south and those based in the northeast. Marikkar recommended that the private sector collaborate with public and government agencies to fast-track peace dividends. Adherence to ceasefires and participation in post-conflict reconstruction can be sustained only when Sri Lankans are able to observe tangible economic results of the peace process.